NATO’s new airbase in Albania highlights country’s role as staunchest supporter of alliance in the region

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 16, 2024 00:59

NATO’s new airbase in Albania highlights country’s role as staunchest supporter of alliance in the region

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  • NATO completes modernization of major airbase in Albania

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TIRANA, March 15, 2024 - When NATO conducted a public opinion survey last year among its then 32 members about whether they would support staying in the alliance in a referendum, Albanians showed the highest support at 100 percent. 

It is no wonder then that when Albania officially reopened the Kuçova Military Airbase on March 4, 2024, transforming the communist-era old base into a modern hub for NATO future air operations, it highlighted the country’s role as staunchest supporter of alliance in the region. 

Two Italian Eurofighter military aircraft departed from the Aviano base in Italy and became the first to land on the runway of the new NATO base in Kuçova, part of an airshow at the official opening ceremony, attended by all of Albania’s top leaders -- president, prime minister and speaker of parliament -- as well as the Italian Minister of Defence Guido Crosetto. 

Prime Minister Edi Rama said the opening of the airbase was part of Albania’s growing investment on defense and of the alliance trust in it as a member.

“The base is another element of security for the Western Balkans which knows well that it is a region not affected by Russian ambitions. I hope the NATO base will bring new opportunities, also to the local economy,” Rama said at the ceremony. 

He added that the reactivation of the military airport is also part of the revitalization and further qualitative growth of Albania’s air force.

Albania recently added two new U.S.-made Blackhawk helicopters as well as Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed drones to the airforce, although it has had no maned fixed-wing aircraft since joining the alliance, relying on Italy and Greece to patrol its airspace, as part of a NATO program. 

With Albania contributing €5 million from its own budget, NATO funded most of the Kuçova base upgrade with around €50 million, making possible a revamp of the base, located around 80 kilometers south of Tirana. Kuçova will serve Albania and support NATO logistics, air operations, training and exercises. 

“The airbase will serve as an important NATO air hub,” says Dylan White, a NATO spokesperson. “The makeover of Kuçova airbase is a strategic investment and shows that NATO continues to strengthen its presence in the Western Balkans, an area of strategic importance to the alliance.”

David Wisner, the most senior diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, said Albania’s cooperation with NATO and its role in maintaining security in the region was something to be grateful for.

“Today, despite the challenges, NATO is stronger and has grown as a symbol of our commitment. I congratulate Albania’s desire to expand cooperation with NATO,” he said. “Albania is appreciated for its contribution to supporting stability in the Western Balkans.”

The Kuçova base is NATO’s biggest project in Albania in the last decade. Renovation work began in 2019 and includes upgrades and renovations to the control tower, runways, hangars and storage facilities. 

“Choosing Albania to develop this project is a clear proof of its capabilities, already consolidated, to take more responsibility and to prudently continue our commitment and contribution to the security of the region and beyond,” said Defence Minister Niko Peleshi.

General Major Arben Kingji, Chief of the General Staff of the Albanian Armed Forces added: "The establishment of this base will enable us to respond swiftly and effectively to challenges emanating from both the eastern and southern borders of the Alliance. It will serve as a hub for coordinated efforts among allied forces, promoting synergy and interoperability." 

A national survey in October 2023 by the Albanian Institute for International Studies last year indicated most people in Albania want better military preparedness and Albanians maintain a strong commitment to their country's NATO membership, with 81 percent of respondents in a national survey showing a positive view of the alliance. The poll also indicated some anxiety about potential armed conflict in the region between Serbia and Kosovo, which would have clear implications for Albania. They also worry about Moscow’s meddling in the region, seeing both Serbia and Russia as top threats to Albania. 

Albania has been a NATO member since 2009. Earlier, with NATO’s help, it had already invested into improving the Kuçova base, but the latest revamp was far more substantial.

Construction of the original air base in what was then known as Stalin City began in 1952 and was completed in 1955, when Albania was part of the Warsaw Pact, which it left in 1968. The communist government built underground hangars in nearby hills with long taxiways to the landing strip. The base served as host to many of Albania’s communist-era 80 aircraft, including MiG-15s, MiG-19s and Chinese-made F-5s and F-6s, all of which were eventually scrapped or decommissioned. The last Albanian MiG flew 19 years ago.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 16, 2024 00:59